Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

Eating Out Guide to Hue, Vietnam

After my trip down pizza lane the other day, you might think that I had given up on local food. This is definitely not the case. Staying in Hue, Vietnam for nine days has given me a chance to sample many of the local dishes as well as frequenting a variety of restaurants, except for those owned by large hotels or glitzy palaces. My only rule when travelling is to avoid these places. We have eaten very well. A short list of restaurants appears at the end of this post in case you ever find yourself  spending time in this relaxed and refined city. Although only around 145 km north of Hôi An, via the dramatic Hải Vân Pass, the city of Hue has its own regional dishes, although in some instances, one could say they are the same, same, and not very different. The locals swear that they are only to be found in Hue!

The ultimate sweet snack.
The ultimate sweet snack.

When I’m craving something sweet, I start munching on Kẹo Đậu Phụng, a peanut and sesame brittle treat. This double layered version, with ample toffee between the layers is a firm winner and can be found in Hue’s Dong Ba Market for 15,000VRD/Au 88c a piece. There is just a hint of residual smoky flavour left from the open charcoal cooking. Versions of this snack are probably found all over Vietnam- some come in flat rounds, others in square blocks.

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Banh Beo, served in Hanh Restaurant, Hue Vietnam

Each restaurant in Hue seems to have a different take on the local dish, bánh bèo. Bánh bèo  (literally “water fern cake”) is a small steamed glutinous rice cake in the shape of a disc. It features a dimple in the center which is filled with savoury ingredients including chopped fresh shrimp, spring onions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots or dried pork crackling, with a side dressing of fish sauce and rice vinegar. The best version in Hue can be found at  Hanh, a little restaurant down a small lane, where they served these snacks in little pottery dishes. To eat them, you add a teaspoon of the dressing, then scoop out the paste with a spoon, fold the parcel in half and slide it down in one mouthful.

banh xx
Banh beo – the vegetarian version from Lien Hoa Restaurant Hue

The vegetarian version at Lien Hoa Restaurant came steamed on a plate and was not so exotic in presentation but still made a fine starter. Lien Hoa is packed with locals on the weekend so time your visit with this in mind. The menu is exciting, cheap and radically different. The main challenge is to not over order. I want it all!! Below, the little nem rán or vegetarian spring rolls, differ from the usual: these seem light and airy, as if made from flaky pastry and resemble little sausage rolls. The small grilled banana leaf parcels contain glutinous rice stuffed with a tasty bean paste. The hot sauces and chilli add another dimension to each mouthful.

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Nem Ran, and steamed tofu served with salt and pepper dip mixed with lime, and Vietnamese mint leaves.

After a few days wandering around Hue, you begin to notice the prominence of vegetarian restaurants in this city. The key word to look for above restaurant doorways is Chay. They are scattered throughout the city,  on both sides of the Perfume River, to serve the locals who have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month as part of their Buddhist belief. Another feature of the local cuisine that sets it apart from others in Vietnam is the smaller serving size and refined presentation. They can often be more spicy than other regional foods, though chilli concoctions are generally served on the side. It is still mild compared with Thai food.

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Banh Khoai, crispy rice pancake, served at Hanh Restaurant, Hue.
Banh ... in the making
Banh Khoai in the making

Banh Khoai is a crunchy rice flour pancake, not unlike a taco, made bright yellow with turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter. It is a smaller and thicker version of the Banh Xeo, the version found in Hôi An discussed in my post here. The rice flour mixture ( there are no eggs used) is cooked in a frypan with ample oil, then stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage, then when the pancake is crispy and golden on the bottom, spring onions and bean sprouts are added to the top. It is then folded and left to drain. The Banh Khoai is served with an abundant serving of lettuce, cucumber, mint, rau ram, coriander, perilla and a small pickle, along as a peanut sauce that is dark and a little challenging, given the touch of pork liver. To eat, break the crispy pancake into edible chunks, add to your serving bowl, cover with lots of herbs and lettuce, and then add a little peanut sauce. Eat with chopsticks, making sure you get lots of mint, which is the main counterbalance to the fried morsel. It is possible to ask for the meaty elements to be removed when you order Banh Khoai. We had them with prawn at Hanh Restaurant.

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A fresh salad adds balance to fried food and soups.

The Vietnamese have embraced a few French staples: not only the ubiquitous baguette, which can be found all over the country and on every street stall, but my favourite little dessert, creme caramel. Kem Flan can be found in most restaurants throughout Hue and is very much a local food. The bakeries across the river near the citadel churn out mini tubs of them daily. I ate a double whammy plate full at Hanh restaurant. They are baked on the premises daily and come with a huge slurp of passionfruit on top.

Half of my double serve of Kem Fflan - Miss greedy couldn't wait for the photo.
Half of my double serve of Kem Flan – Miss greedy couldn’t wait for the photo

A few restaurant recommendations. Each one offers something delightful and not necessarily the food.

  • Hanh Restaurant. A great local restaurant with interesting local dishes and a very small but authentic menu. One English-speaking waiter will help show you how to assemble your dishes. 1 Phó Đức Chính, tp. Huế, Phú Hội
  • Lien Hoa Vegetarian Restaurant, very busy with locals on the weekend, serving unusual and exciting vegetarian food. Đôn, Thiêh, 3 Lê Quý Đôn, Huế, Thua Thien Hue
  • Zucca, the best restaurant in Hue. Great Pizza, pasta and fusion food. Cheap local beer and wine. See my review here.
  • Risotto. Has a similar menu to Zucca but the food is disappointing. Free bruschetta seems to appeal to the crowds. Handy to the hotel precinct.
  • Serene Shining Restaurant. 57/5 Nguyen Cong Tru street, Hue. This restaurant is attached to our hotel and makes lovely soups. The crab and lotus seed soup is very comforting after a long day. The staff are a happy crew and keen to assist with anything. This hotel is small, comfortable and the staff make you feel very much at home.
  • Bo De Vegetarian restaurant. 11 Le Loi, Hue, Vietnam. Great eggplant dishes. Many things were unavailable during our last visit and I suspect the food comes from a bain marie. Close to the river at the Museum end of Le Loi.
  • Lac Thien, 6 Dinh Hoang, Hue, Vietnam. On the Citadel side of the river and handy if you are strolling about in that older neighbourhood. Simple food, nothing special, except for the large extended family running the place and the 92 year old grandmother who still helps out. 

A few good Links on Vietnamese Food

Out On The Patio We Sit

“Out on the patio we sit,

And the humidity we breathe,

We watch the lightning crack over canefields,

Laugh and think, this is Australia”

This old song by Gangajang came to mind yesterday as we sat out on Barnadi and Adam’s new deck in a suburban backyard in Melbourne. The weather was hot and humid, but sadly there was no lightning. This was Barnadi’s combined Birthday/Christmas celebration, an annual event that he has held since arriving from Jakarta, Indonesia 30 years ago. I have been to 24 of these festive Indonesian banquets.

Above. Udang Tepung and Pekedil Jagung – Fried Prawns in Batter and Fried Potato and Corn Cake. Krupuk in the background as well as the ear of Googoo, the dog.

The 12 guests, all good friends of Barnadi, ranged in age, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Three straight couples, two gay couples, two singles: one Indonesian, one Chinese, one Thai, one Israeli, two Dutch, one British and the rest Australian, simply meaning that they appeared to have been born here, with Anglo-Celtic background. And having said this, I realise that these labels and descriptions are limiting and misleading. We were all Australian, enjoying a Pimms or a white wine on a sunny day in the backyard. We all came from diverse backgrounds but had a lot in common- a love of food, travel, and good conversation.

This is Australia. We celebrate diversity here. This is what we do.

Above. An Indonesian Banquet. Sapi Rendang, Ayam Kari, Ayam Goreng, Ayam Bakar, Sayur Lodeh, Tempeh kentang Tahu, Pepes Ikan, Ikan Bakar.

Above. Basok Ayam- Fried Chicken meatballs

Thanks B and A  for another lovely day.

Bali for Beginners or the Disenchanted, part 1.

My guide to Bali is based on 36 years of visiting this beautiful island. Naturally, it will reflect many prejudices that I hold. I feel compelled to put this list together to aid those who may be travelling to Bali for the first time, but also for those who may wish to return but feel ambivalent about the place based on a previous negative experience. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Bali has many diverse districts and travel cultures. It is important to choose the district that suits your interests and lifestyle. If you get this wrong, your view of the island will be tainted and your holiday won’t be so pleasant. The main tourist areas can be grouped as follows:

  • The commercial district, hotel and nightclub area around Kuta/Legian/Seminyak. These beaches suit surfers: they are broad but lack natural shade. Commerce is ever-present and you may find it difficult to politely shrug off unwanted sellers. At times this will become extremely annoying but you must remain polite. Prices for restaurant food, nic nacs, and other services  including massage, pedicures, transport and so on will be higher and the level of negotiation will be more intense. Night revellers and other travellers may enjoy this area: if you don’t like loud night life or intense commerce, you may find this area really annoying. The very young gravitate towards Kuta and Legian. It’s a party town so beware! Accommodation options are diverse, from the super cheap to very expensive. The restaurant scene is lively here: many Australian restaurants have set up branches in this district. You can still eat local food but the style will be more Western, catering for a foreign palate. I stopped going to this district in the mid 1990s.
  • The beach area of Sanur. The oldest tourist district in Bali, Sanur still maintains a village feel in the back streets away from the beach.  The beach area in Sanur has deep shade along the five kilometre tourist promenade. The beach is not a surf beach, although intrepid surfers go out on the reef. At low tide the reef can be exposed and there are some safe swimming spots here and there. There is plenty of commerce in Sanur but it isn’t so intrusive. A polite ‘no thank you’ or tidak usually works. The prices are generally cheaper for most goods and services. Accommodation ranges from the very cheap to the hideously expensive. The restaurant scene is diverse also.There is a large expat community living in this district – Australian, Dutch, Scandinavian. This area is often favoured by older people, people with young families and young Europeans who flock here for the water sports provided (diving, snorkelling, surfing lessons, trips to the island of Nusa Lembongan, kite surfing). The night life winds up early. There are down sides to every district. Some of the grand hotel development along the water front is obscene. The water use in five-star hotels is around five times that of a whole Balinese family’s average of 200 litres a day. More about this issue in another post. I go here to relax but intersperse my stays with trips to other islands in Indonesia.

    Waiting for Customers - fancy a beach massage? Sanur.
    Surf school sets up on Sanur Beach
  • Northern beaches of Pemuteran and Lovina.Pemuteran is very quiet and dryer than the south. The sand is black and not so suitable for sun baking. This is classic old Bali. Tourist commerce is minimal but there are about 10 or so small resorts offering beautiful accommodation and food, a few good restaurants along the main street, and many diving operators. There are also some fabulous large private villas available for rent facing the sea. The area is known for diving and snorkelling as the reefs are intact or being restored and the local turtles are protected. The car trip from Denpasar area orSanur may take 5 hours, crossing a steep mountain range with stunning views of rice terraces. During our last stay, the town celebrated a mass Balinese funeral to which the tourists were invited.  Photos taken around Pemuteran below. Eating is on the agenda!
  • East coast beaches of Amed and Candidasa. I have visited both these places but never stayed long. The east coast looks very dry. There are many small backpacker places as well as newer flash- packer accommodation. Amed is the newest development in Bali and is too cool for school. The swimming and snorkelling are good and it is also a jumping off point to go to the Gili islands off Lombok. Candidasa seems to be in decline due to unscrupulous development. The once golden sandy beach (1980s) has been destroyed and concrete groynes have been installed in an attempt to reclaim some of the beach. The beach is impassable at high tide.
  • Ubud is the artistic and cultural centre of Bali. Away from the busy commercial centre, long walks through verdant green rice terraces can be wonderful. The restaurant scene in Ubud is quite innovative. It is also a place to see authentic versions of Balinese Dance and hear gamelan orchestras. The major art galleries in Ubud offer a good introduction to Balinese art through the ages. Again, the over development of this area is a worry and the commerce along Monkey Forest Road can be overwhelming. Each time I visit Jalan Bisma, I am shocked to see yet more rice paddies disappear.
  • Other areas. It is possible to rent a house in the middle of the rice paddies in central Bali. This is a great option if you enjoy isolation, speak a little Bahasa Indonesian and wish to learn more about Balinese life.

Below. the photos were taken in outer Ubud on walks around that district.

Have you been to Bali? What was your experience like? Do you plan to return? Join the discussion, your comments are valued.  Bali for Beginners and the Disenchanted, Part Two will deal with food, restaurants, transport, culture, problems and more so stay tuned.